Books

Cover of book: The Good Captain

Sean Rabin
The Good Captain

The eponymous “good captain” of Sean Rabin’s second novel is Rena, previously known as Idu, Margit, Nina and then Karen. She has never lived on land; proximity to the stench of it makes her retch. People don’t thrill her either. The ocean, however, is as familiar and dear as a lover, and she reads everything from its multiform waves to its submarine topography like a book.

But it’s the second half of this century, 11 billion people are crowding the planet and the ocean is fast becoming a wasteland ruled by jellyfish and plastic. Overfishing threatens to kill it completely – unless Rena and the crew of the boat she pilots, Mama, can stop the trawlers. There’s no time left for legality or public relations, just torpedoes to blow the bastards out of the water, and a special mission involving a kidnapped former Australian prime minister referred to as “the cargo”.

The Good Captain belongs to the growing genre of climate fiction. Its pages pulse with righteous anger and urgency and demand the reader consider what is needed to save the planet. The futuristic technologies that power Mama – and her enemies – have roots in cyberpunk, steampunk and biomimetics. And yet, if Mama has organic elements such as nerves and a swim bladder, the characters of the international crew seem at times to be mechanistic assemblies of quirks and technical genius.

They use one another for consensual sexual satisfaction like cats use scratching posts. They mourn the death of one of their own but commit mass murder of fishermen with scarcely a twinge of conscience. “The cargo”, meanwhile, is a self-interested, venal, lecherous and foul human being and a climate criminal. Wink-wink references abound to “captain’s calls”, the gratuitous donning of hard hats and so on. Throw him overboard. Who cares? He’s just cardboard. And that’s a problem.

The Good Captain is a thriller that pivots on the question: what if politics as usual has failed and civil disobedience is not enough to save the planet? The swirls and surges of Rabin’s prodigiously inventive technical jargon and action-saturated narrative and the pure villainy of its villains obscure another pressing question. Does the survival of the planet really necessitate the extinction, if not of humans, of our humanity? If we lose our humanity, don’t we lose everything? Mama has submarine capabilities. It seems fair to wonder why The Good Captain couldn’t dive any deeper. 

Transit Lounge, 368pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "The Good Captain, Sean Rabin".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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